Chapter 1, Part 5
The fantastic black horse-like creature had been leaping around the mountain forest with the speed of a loosed arrow, but the moment Tohru and Chaika vanished, it stopped.
It now stood there stock still—a far cry from its earlier behavior. Not a hint of its ferocity remained; on the contrary, its eyes had gone hollow, like it had lost all life.
A thicket of bushes parted with a rustle, revealing the figure of a man.
On his small body he wore a cloak, olive brown with swatches of dark green, in order to blend in with the vegetation. This made him indistinguishable from the surrounding environment. As a bonus, the cloak masked the outlines of his body, making for even more effective camouflage.
Not to mention the man had been thorough.
His face and cleanly-shaven bald head were covered in paint mimicking the cloak’s pattern, and on his back was a bag as long as a greatsword, similarly wrapped in a dark green and olive brown obi sash.
“They got away, huh…” the man murmured.
The paint on his face made it difficult to tell what kind of expression he was making. He fearlessly stepped up beside the unicorn and peered down into the ravine that Tohru and the girl had jumped into.
“Guess I was ill-prepared. Should I just wait for Sir Gillette to get here…?”
He muttered to himself as if gathering his thoughts.
“No. I won’t let this great opportunity go to waste.”
A white crack spread across the man’s camouflaged face—the man was baring his teeth in a smile.
“Now, how’s about we tie this up in go?”
Facing the statue-like unicorn, the man set his bag down.
* * *
He must have only blacked out for several seconds. Any longer, and they would have surely drowned.
The instant Tohru regained consciousness, he checked to make sure he had his arm securely around the girl.
She was coughing up suds and flailing around wildly, but she was alive and conscious. Fortunately, the coffin she held onto with religious zeal had acted as a flotation device. Tohru had already figured as much judging from the sound it made when it dragged the ground, but there seemed to be hardly anything inside, if anything at all, since it was buoyant enough to support both Tohru and the girl.
He stretched out his other arm with all his strength. There were branches hanging down from the trees on both sides of the riverbank, but he wasn’t close enough to grab any of them. However, he remembered that it was common to see the water level in a riverbank rise due to heavy rain, which would in turn erode the soil and expose the tree roots underneath. Eventually he found one of these roots, grabbed it and successfully pulled himself, the girl, and the coffin against the raging current and back up onto solid ground.
He stretched out on top of a mossy riverside rock exhausted, gasping in ragged breaths. He had the feeling that that was the majority of his stamina gone.
A fleeting glance to the side and he saw that the girl was much the same; she was coughing and hacking violently. Even so, she made sure her coffin was unharmed—it must have been something very important to her. Then, slowly, she turned to face Tohru.
“Abrupt. Forceful. Excessive—”
But that was as far as she got.
The girl froze in place, her eyes wide.
The girl pointed in front of her.
Thinking that this could mean nothing good, Tohru got up and looked down at the rock he’d been laying on.
It was dyed in the color of rust.
It was blood, no question. The river water from Tohru’s wet clothes and the blood from the wound on his back had mixed on the rock, dyeing it a pale brown. Blood was different from normal pigments in that it didn’t become a light pink when mixed with water—it became a color closer to brown.
“Ah…” Tohru said listlessly. “Well, I screwed that up, huh.”
The girl came closer to Tohru, gazing at his back intently.
“Because, protected me?”
Tohru, of course, couldn’t see his own back, but he could imagine the damage. It didn’t seem like it had reached the bone or anything, but it felt like a gaping wound. He could sense that it was a straight line across his back, as if it had been inflicted by some kind of blade.
“Huh. How’d that happen…”
“Urgent. Treatment, required.”
The girl then started turning out her pockets feverishly as if searching for something. A good amount of water splashed out, but it didn’t seem like she found anything useful.
“…None,” she muttered dejectedly.
“Uh, no, I’ll probably be alright…” said Tohru wearily.
After all, he knew his own body best. If he had continued to be submerged in the river, there was a chance that he could have died from blood loss or even frozen to death due to hypothermia. However, the wound hadn’t cut deeply into muscle or bone, and he knew the bleeding had already begun to stem.
“All those frugal meals have taken their toll, huh?”
His stamina was lacking. He had lost blood, and the freezing river water had sapped his energy. A heavy exhaustion had fallen upon him. Not to mention it had been a long while since he’d had a decent meal.
“Guess we can’t escape, then,” Tohru said as if it didn’t even concern him.
Even in this life-threatening situation, neither his tone of voice nor facial expression displayed even one inkling of urgency. It wasn’t that he was overly optimistic or hopeful, either; that was just how he was.
“We’re no match for a Feyra—and especially not a unicorn.”
The girl remained silent.
Despite her earlier haughty attitude, she seemed like a dunce in some respects…but she was at least able to understand the gravity of being chased around by a Feyra in the mountains.
“It’s useless. Probably best to give up. It’s checkmate,” Tohru said with a shrug. Pain shot up his back, and he winced. “…Man, what a dull life I led.”
He made that sudden judgment.
The girl blinked as she spoke up at last. It was almost like she had never heard those words before.
Tohru nodded noncommittally, giving a wry smile.
“Well, yeah, obviously,” he said with another shrug.
“Death. Not afraid?” she asked, pointing at Tohru.
“Hm? Ah, well, I’d probably be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid, but—”
Tohru averted his eyes from the girl.
Why he did so was unknown even to himself.
“I don’t even know if it’s okay for me to be alive to begin with.”
He smiled a self-derisive smile.
“In…this kind of world.”
He didn’t know what to aim for.
He didn’t know what to wish for.
He didn’t want to do anything. Not anymore.
And it was too late for him to make something of himself.
He didn’t have any clear wishes or goals. He was merely living each day in a directionless, endless cycle.
Was there a proper occupation that suited him?
If so, what could it possibly be?
He could have worked for the sake of his daily bread, taken a bride at a suitable age, settled down in a small house in the corner of the district and lived an average life up to the day he died—yet he had no interest in spending his remaining time like that.
Just how much meaning did that really have?
Would it really be any different than dying right here?
For what reason was he even born?
He couldn’t help but think that no matter how hard he worked, it wouldn’t amount to hardly anything. The amount that a single human could do by himself was minuscule at best. He would live and die without making any sort of mark on the world.
There was nothing he could do. There was nothing he could leave behind.
His life was no better than that of an insect, or a beast.
A life goal.
A goal to work towards.
He’d had them, once upon a time. He once had full confidence in his purpose. But on that day, he’d had his ambitions abruptly snatched from him.
So when it came time for Tohru to do something, he would always question if it was even worth doing. For a year, he had done nothing but wallow in depravity.
Tohru began to speak in a voice that bordered on sulky.
“There was stuff I wanted to do back in the day.”
“But not anymore. It’s all gone. Now the only thing I adhere to is the law of inertia.”
The girl stared at Tohru for a while, her head tilted to the side, then finally…
She pointed at Tohru sternly, like she was giving him a command.
“You will. Again. Start now. Once more,” she said, as if it were the natural course of action.
“It’s too late for that.”
“Truthfully? I have no aptitude for anything else.”
He had once had a purpose for living.
He spent every day working towards that purpose, so he didn’t have time to think otherwise or study any other techniques. Tohru was like a lump of clay already baked into the shape of a plate. It was too late to want to become a teacup. Even if he was told to live his life differently, it wasn’t so easy.
Suddenly started pounding on Tohru’s back repeatedly.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, you idiot!?”
“Ah. Sorry. Felt unsatisfied.”
“‘Felt unsatisfied’, my ass!”
It might not have been a deep wound, but having that area struck was definitely still quite painful.
The girl suddenly pointed to herself.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Untalented. Same as you. Can do—very little.”
She reached over to the coffin beside her and slowly opened it up.
As he’d deduced from the fact that the coffin had been able to float in the river, it was mostly empty—however.
Tohru’s eyes went wide.
What the girl took out—was a steel device.
Based on its length, Tohru thought at first that it was some kind of mechanical spear…but no, this was different.
It was a long, long cylindrical shaft, into which numerous mechanical parts could be attached.
There was a scope, used to adjust aim.
There was a wooden grip and a bipod, used to fix it to the ground.
It was—a Gundo.
It was a device that wizards used when they wanted to fire their magic. Just as cavaliers used swords and archers used bows and arrows, wizards used their Gundo. In other words, having a Gundo was proof that you were a wizard.
“You…you’re a wizard?”
The girl gave a small proud smile—and promptly got to work assembling her Gundo.
From the fact that it needed to be disassembled for storage it was already obvious, but…it was long, so long it even surpassed the girl’s own height. The cold black steel and the warm brown wood drew a strange contrast.
“This, all. Otherwise, useless. But…”
Lastly, the girl unfolded the bipod and set it on top of the coffin.
“With this, can do plenty.”
“So you mean…” Tohru narrowed his eyes.
He wasn’t a wizard himself, so he didn’t understand the details. However, he had heard a lot about the power wizards held.
Due to the size and weight of the Gundo, they required quite a bit of effort to operate, so they weren’t very portable. Basically, they required the user to either leave it in one place, or at least have some really solid footing.
However—magic was much more powerful than a sword or bow.
Given a considerably long range and plenty of time, a lone wizard could potentially level an entire castle with a single shot. The man whose death had brought the era of war to an end, Arthur Gaz—also known as the Demon King, the Taboo Emperor, Emperor Gaz the Great Sage, and many other monikers—was said to have possessed magic so great that he had the potential to level entire mountains and dry up whole rivers.
“You mean to say that instead of running away from the unicorn…we can kill it?”
A bold smile appeared on the girl’s face as she nodded.
She apparently had some degree of confidence in her ability as a wizard.
“However. During magic activation process—cannot move.”
“…Yeah, I bet.”
Naturally, with that overwhelming amount of power wizards had been scouted out and recruited for war, but the majority of them lacked the capability to fight on the front lines. Instead, they mostly provided support from the back. Having to use a cumbersome Gundo while taking into account the various minute adjustments for each particular location, it could even be said that the wizards were completely useless in close-quarters combat.
So that meant—
“Alright, so first let’s use surveillance magic to figure out where the Feyra is. Then, we can think about how to strike…”
That was all he had the time to say.
The girl froze in place.
Tohru heaved a sigh.
There was no need to turn around and look.
The scene behind him was clearly reflected in the girl’s enlarged pupils—from amidst the trees, the figure of the horselike beast had appeared.
Moruzerun, Moruzerun, Erumun.
Protruding from the top of the unicorn’s head was an organ which most people called a “horn.” It was now emitting light.
It trembled on top of the unicorn’s long, thin face, the light flickering intermittently, but the light didn’t go out. On the contrary, the horn expanded on its own and began to draw a complicated pattern.
Seburun, Wamurun, Tourun.
Shunerun, Horun, Yarun.
It was—a magic circle.
That was the name given to creatures who could use magic.
Fundamentally, humans had to use Gundo to use magic. To be more precise, it was possible to use magic without a Gundo, but an unrealistic amount of preparation had to be made beforehand. Feyra, on the other hand, could innately use magic.
Their bodies had been furnished with the capability for compiling and invoking magic. In the unicorn’s case, their elongated horn was the “vessel” where their magic was stored.
Tohru turned around and fixed his eyes upon the girl.
“How about I buy you some time?”
“If I buy you some time, will you be able to use your magic?”
Wizards didn’t necessarily need to fire their magic from long-range. The only real reason wizards typically kept their distance from the enemy was to not get hit. In other words…if Tohru could allow the girl enough time to activate her magic, they would both be able to survive.
“A Feyra with that kind of power…this definitely won’t be a cakewalk,” he said, pulling his large hatchet from his waist.
Of course, it was an edged tool, so it was more used for slicing through annoying vegetation in a mountainous forest area. It wasn’t really suited for hunting or combat.
But he couldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth here. He had to use what was at his disposal.
A hatchet—and a skill he had mastered.
“I am steel.”
The girl responded reflexively, but Tohru did not reply. He was already in a state of extreme mental concentration, so while he technically heard the girl, her voice didn’t reach his consciousness.
“Steel knows no fear. Steel knows no doubt.”
While there were parts of the chant he honestly couldn’t consciously remember, the words came from his throat and slipped out his mouth nonetheless. He had repeated them so many times that they were ground into his being. Even after several years of inactivity, his ability to recite it had not diminished.
Did that make him happy, or just depress him further?
To tell the truth, the current Tohru didn’t know, but…
“When faced with my enemy, I hesitate not.”
It was some kind of “key”.
A key to a dangerous weapon that he didn’t normally use.
Each time he recited the chant, his body changed completely.
“I am a weapon to destroy these.”
There were people who had battle skills and techniques drilled into them thoroughly, right down to their bones—and they became human weapons.
It wasn’t a simple issue of leg or arm strength.
Their entire bodies—everything from their nerves to their physiology—was redefined and optimized for the purpose of combat.
Breathing for battle, heart beating for battle, only thinking about battle…a being like that was no longer human.
It was a weapon possessing human form and functions.
Their entire existence—everything they were—was now converged on one single objective, a tool for a solitary purpose.
However, that made living as a normal human rather difficult. Optimizing the body for battle meant doing away with normal, superfluous human functions.
A tool was a tool. Nothing resembling a human remained inside.
To be captured by the enemy in this state would be a dangerous situation indeed. After all, appealing to reason, loyalty, or faith was something that only a human could do.
Therefore, the ability to return back to that human state was necessary.
An ability to switch back and forth between human and weapon.
A group of people who realized this managed to make it a reality—and they built up a clan where they could pass down the technique.
It was known as—the hidden technique, “Iron-Blood Transformation.”
All of the hair on his body stood on end.
The muscles that had been lying dormant within him awakened, and his nerves began to heat up into battle mode. In this moment, Tohru ceased to be Tohru.
He was now a single sword.
His breathing, his heartbeat, his thoughts, everything was geared toward one purpose: to slaughter the enemy.
All emotions had vanished from his face.
No, to any onlooker it may have even looked like his entire physical form had suddenly changed color.
As a result of all the blood vessels in his body going into overdrive, a tattoo-like design had formed upon his body. The high-pressure energy coming off the surface of his skin was changing the rate that light was being refracted, causing the outlines of his body to emit a phosphorescent glow. His hair and eyes, both areas easily influenced by blood vessel activity, now looked red.
The figure of Tohru looked like a monster in human form.
Shunerun, Horun, Yarun.
The unicorn finished chanting its spell.
The magic circle drawn by the tip of the unicorn’s horn revolved slowly and flickered as if it were breathing. As expected, this type of Feyra wasn’t one to be intimidated by something like a human changing color or appearance.
“Come and get me, you mule,” Tohru said as he readied his hatchet.
The dark horse’s outline became a blur.
In the next instant–
Thud. Thud. Thud thud. Thudthudthudthudthud!
The unicorn leapt at such a speed that it left an afterimage.
Its large dark build weaved through the trees effortlessly, drawing a complex path as it approached Tohru. No matter how much jumping power it had, that kind of movement would normally be impossible, and even more so since its legs were kicking off from nothing but empty air.
This unicorn was definitely using magic.
While its magic was activated, it was able to use anything and everything as a foothold—even the air itself. It was a monster that could run along walls and ceilings if necessary, confusing the eyes of its prey as it attacked. With each kick its body accelerated, eventually attaining the top speed of an arrow in flight. Being struck with those sharp tusks or large body at that speed would mean certain death.
The unicorn wasn’t aiming for the girl, but for Tohru.
It was already obvious from its ability to use magic, but the Feyra was overall smarter than normal animals. At the very least, it was able to understand Tohru’s provocation. It had probably prioritized Tohru as the more formidable foe, and thus was planning to deal with him first.
Tohru let out a sharp breath as he brandished his hatchet.
Using both hands for support, he readied the weapon, but it crashed against the unicorn’s tusk in the next instant. Sparks flew as the tusk met the edge of the blade.
Of course, Tohru’s body mass wasn’t enough to stop the unicorn’s charge, so the dark Feyra’s body collided with him and they both fell into the river—however, there was no trace of irritation or anger on his face. His expression remained terribly calm and collected; he was analyzing internally the situation that had been put before him. He didn’t have time for superfluous things like “emotions”. Even calling the beast a “mule” earlier had been nothing more than a tactic to provoke it.
A unicorn’s hooves weren’t sharp.
Therefore it would either have to use a ramming attack with its body or a slashing attack with its tusks to do any damage.
And since speed was its most distinctive attribute, it would aim for a one-shot kill. Once Tohru knew that it was going to be aiming for his throat area, he could block it no matter how much speed it had.
“I won’t let you get away,” Tohru muttered.
He twined both legs around the unicorn’s neck.
The unicorn bellowed.
For a unicorn, underwater was most disadvantageous. Its ultra-high speed achieved through magic was enough to overwhelm any of the prey it normally hunted. However, movement in the water versus the air was severely limited—the water enveloping the unicorn resisted it. The result was that its speed was reduced to basically nil.
“Now it doesn’t matter how fast you are!”
What’s more, he was so close to the unicorn that speed didn’t make a difference anyway. Hanging upside-down from the unicorn’s neck with both legs, he raised his hatchet once again.
He was aiming for its jaw.
There was the sound of screeching metal.
The unicorn bit into the hatchet with its sharp jaws. Turning its head agressively, it had quite literally eaten Tohru’s attack.
With this, Tohru’s only weapon was rendered unusable.
“Gotcha,” Tohru said with a confirming nod.
With both hands, he pushed the hatchet deep into the unicorn’s mouth.
“And now you can’t chant any of your spells!”
The core of the unicorn’s magic was definitely its horn, but chanting was an essential component. Now, its jaws were preoccupied with holding back Tohru’s hatchet. The moment it opened its mouth, the upper half of its head would be sliced off. Even a Feyra would die instantly if its brain separated from its body.
The unicorn’s bloodshot eyes glared hard at Tohru. It was definitely shooting daggers of hatred with its gaze—a feat completely impossible for normal beasts.
“Now it’s down to a battle of attrition.”
Tohru spoke with no emotion.
The unicorn could no longer use magic.
Tohru couldn’t let go of the hatchet.
It was like an endurance contest between two crossed swords. As fang and hatchet grated together, the river water was carrying them downstream.
I think I’m the one at a disadvantage here, though, Tohru thought, as if he was an innocent bystander.
All that activity had caused the wound on Tohru’s back to open up again. If he stayed underwater, he would either bleed or freeze to death.
It went without saying that in terms of physical strength, the as-of-yet unhurt large unicorn had the upper hand.